Agencies promote telework as a powerful tool, not a panacea

Editor's note: This story is part of a special report on work-life balance. Click here to view the full report.

Alternative work schedules long have been touted as one solution to the federal government's recruitment and retention challenges. Telework, in particular, has taken narrow but determined root in many federal agencies, and the Obama administration has made it a priority to translate those limited successes into governmentwide standards for telework policies. But the administration also recognizes that agencies and managers have to be more flexible and comfortable making case-by-case decisions. Officials also are trying to balance expectations by underscoring that while flexibility in the workplace is a powerful tool, it's not a magic wand.

"We don't want to make people skeptical by touting telework as a panacea that's going to solve all of society's ills," said Office of Personnel Management Director John Berry during a September meeting of the Telework Exchange, a public-private partnership.

In an OPM report on the state of telework in the federal government in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, 78 federal agencies reported that 102,900 federal employees were working remotely. Of those employees, 64 percent were teleworking on a fairly regular basis at least one day per week. But half those agencies reported that telework was not part of their continuity of operations plans.

"The federal government as a whole is not behind the private sector when you look at the numbers," said OPM Deputy Associate Director Dan Green. "Obviously, there are [individual] companies and sectors that are further along."

Even before those results were released, Berry had decided that federal telework efforts needed to be expanded. In April, he announced that the administration would set up a council of high-level managers to establish standards and best practices for telework policies, require agencies to create appeals processes for employees denied the chance to telework, and develop more extensive training programs to better prepare employees to work remotely and help managers to oversee them properly. All those efforts were part of past telework bills that were introduced in the House and Senate, but failed to move forward.

Green was tapped to lead the administration's efforts. "I would guess only a few of [the policies] are as comprehensive as they need to be," he said. "The Department of Defense is redoing [their policy], OPM, too. GSA just redid theirs. It is a learning process."

As OPM works on its model policy and a checklist tool for agencies to use in evaluating their telework programs, individual agencies and nonprofits with successful programs are trying to continue to promote working remotely to those managers and agency leaders who still are skeptical.

Howard Friedman, an attorney at the Patent and Trademark Office and first vice president of the Society of Federal Labor and Employee Relations Professionals, said PTO has benefited from its telework program, which began more than 12 years ago. PTO is regularly commended, Friedman says, for having patent attorneys answer queries and respond to applications late at night or on weekends. An employee who teleworks from California is able to answer calls and e-mail from applicants who work on Pacific Standard Time, instead of requiring them to schedule calls during the workday on Eastern Standard Time.

Berry has cited the National Transportation Safety Board, which first set up a telework pilot in 2007, and then later moved to an agencywide program. Berry said the number of sick days agency employees take has fallen while retention is up. Green said federal employees with flexible work schedules, including those who work remotely, generally take less time off for emergencies or to recharge from stressful situations because they have more leeway to accommodate unusual circumstances, and to mitigate factors such as lengthy commutes.

Some external groups have urged the federal government to remind its own employees that telework is a possibility and to help them learn if it's an appropriate benefit for them. Cindy Auten, general manager of the Telework Exchange, said Virginia's Telework Day in August, which mostly involved public and private sector employees, had an overwhelmingly positive effect on workers who participated: 91 percent said they were more likely to telework in the future.

Flexible Feds

Experiments like Telework Day can address one of the most significant barriers to advancing telework: convincing managers that the practice is, well, manageable. OPM's report on the program noted that agencies cited management resistance as one of the biggest impediments to expanding telework in the federal government. Green said that once managers get over the hump of believing that teleworkers somehow have to be managed differently or more aggressively than employees who work in the office, it will be much easier to spur adoption of telework in agencies.

That conversation about management training is an important part of a larger vision of workplace flexibility, says Katie Corrigan, co-director of the Workplace Flexibility 2010 project at Georgetown University Law School.

"I think the bright light has been on telework," she said, "but we also believe there's a much bigger conversation to be had about how the federal government can be a leader across the board on flexible work arrangements, and not just a leader, but an innovator."

Corrigan said government first should create a process that allows federal employees to ask for more flexibility in their schedules. Such a process would foster a sense that telework and other alternate work schedules are not just benefits available to a select few employees, but to all qualified workers. And allowing employees to request more flexibility would mean managers have to be prepared to discuss telework and other options with workers, as well as the performance standards required to succeed in such alternative work schedules.

But Corrigan said the goal of a true workplace flexibility program shouldn't be simply to shunt all workers into telework programs, or schedules with core required hours, or compressed work schedules, which Corrigan said are "a pretty rigid." Instead, a truly flexible workplace would allow employees to move between schedules and arrangements that were most convenient for them at any given time as long as their performance stayed strong.

It's an ambitious goal, but in a November speech at Syracuse University, Berry said the federal government should consider aiming for a "results-only work environment" that would unchain many employees from time clocks.

"It would treat our employees like responsible adults, and if we do it right, with proper training for workers and managers and flexibilities like telework and alternate work schedules, it will boost morale, increase productivity and deliver good value to our taxpayers," Berry said.

And the benefits aren't simply related to job performance, Corrigan said. The Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies has found that among low-wage workers, the risk of cardiovascular disease decreases and the amount of sleep increases when employers are willing to accommodate employees' schedules and family needs. "The case has been made," she said.

According to Corrigan, the federal government now needs to return to the forward-thinking perspective that led Congress to pass workplace flexibility laws for federal agencies in the 1970s.

"They had these same exact issues on the table in terms of major demographic shifts such as women in the workplace, an aging population, people with disabilities having different expectations about being integrated in the workplace as opposed to being dependent on benefits," Corrigan said. Today, "The federal government could be innovating, gathering data, seeing what works, modifying what doesn't, testing it out in a union setting, testing it out in a nonunion setting."

In this administration, Corrigan might finally get her wish.

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